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Week of 19 January 2009


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Monday, 19 January 2009
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08:57 - Barbara is off for MLKJ Day. We got a fair number of images shot yesterday, and we'll shoot more today.

Our Monday and Tuesday newspapers now have only two sections. Barbara handed me the second section this morning, which has the sports and comics. The headline on the front page said that the Cardinals and Steelers were going to the Super Bowl. I was surprised when Barbara mentioned Arizona. I thought the Cardinals were in St. Louis. I was even more surprised to learn that Los Angeles had moved to St. Louis. At least Pittsburgh is where it always was. I think.



10:29 - This list of proposed "science" fair topics for Christian home school kids is representative of what we as a civilization are up against. Now, you might think that this is just one particularly stupid list from one particularly ignorant local group of so-called "creation scientists". Unfortunately, it's pretty representative of how these people think, if what they do can even be described as thinking. They do understand one thing, that science and their religious beliefs are fundamentally incompatible, and so they are determined to destroy science.

If it were just their own children that they were working to corrupt, that'd be bad enough. But the goal of these people and thousands of others across the county is to eliminate science in public school classrooms and teach this crap in its stead. They tried the head-on approach. That failed dismally, so now they repeatedly try different back-door methods. Fortunately, courts have consistently ruled that "creation science", "intelligent design", and all their other back-door attempts to force religion into science classrooms violate the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution. But they keep trying to sneak this crap into public school classrooms under other names.

Make no mistake. These people are wackaloons, but it would be a huge mistake to dismiss them as harmless nutters. Nutters they are, but they're anything but harmless. They are well-funded, well-organized, and there are a lot of them. They have the sympathetic ears of many legislators at the local and state level. They won't be satisfied until the war is over and science has lost. We need to fight them. We can't give an inch.


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Tuesday, 20 January 2009
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09:08 - I was sorry to learn last week that O'Reilly Media has laid off 30 people, about 14% of its staff. That must have been a very painful decision for Tim and the rest of O'Reilly's executive group. I don't yet know which of my friends there have lost their jobs, but I'm sure some of those I've worked with over the years must be among that unfortunate group.

I'm not employed by O'Reilly and have no inside information about their business, but I suspect the root of the problem is simply that books don't sell like they used to. Oh, there are some titles that sell in huge numbers, and no doubt there are more bestsellers as yet unpublished, but the average book sells a lot fewer copies than it did ten years ago, or even five. And, ultimately, it's the average that matters more than the occasional bestseller. O'Reilly no doubt beats the averages, but a falling tide lowers all boats. Publishing must be a scary business to be in right now. I know that's true of being a freelance author.

The crash of the economy is certainly a major factor, but declining book sales predate that. The Internet is both the problem and the potential solution. It's the problem because in some ways it's a direct replacement for a book. Why buy a book when you can find the information you need with Google, instantly and for free? A decade ago, I used books and other printed matter for 95% of my research and the Internet for 5%. Nowadays, the percentages are reversed. And I'm by no means alone. A decade ago, if you visited the office or cubicle of a network manager or programmer, you'd have found shelves and shelves of well-thumbed technical books. Visit the same office today, and you'll likely find at most a few lonely books in need of a good dusting. Network managers and programmers, like everyone else nowadays, find most of the information they need on the web.

But the Internet is also the solution. Fundamentally, a printed book is just one way of packaging information, a way that is increasingly obsolescent. O'Reilly is full of smart people, and I suspect they're fully aware that they're not really in the book publishing business. They're in the information delivery business. Ask just about any of O'Reilly's customers about O'Reilly, and they'll tell you that O'Reilly publishes top-notch technical books. But what they're really saying is that O'Reilly publishes top-notch technical information. And I'm sure O'Reilly realizes the truth of that statement. The challenge for O'Reilly over the coming years will be to adapt to the senescence of books by replacing them with new Internet-based delivery methods, and to monetize those delivery methods.

Another challenge will be accommodating changing serving sizes. Just as the music industry has had to deal with the death of album sales because everyone now buys individual tracks, book publishers must begin to think in terms of packaging and selling information in smaller chunks. This disaggregation has a lot of implications on both the revenue and cost sides. Just as music fans no longer have to pay for an entire album to get the one or two tracks they really want, information fans will no longer have to pay for an entire book to get the one or two chapters they really want.

As to the implications for me, I'm still thinking them through. This home forensics lab book may be the last one I write. My future efforts may be devoted to creating chapter-size chunks of useful information that can be sold independently. One thing is for sure. It's going to be an interesting 2009 and beyond.


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Wednesday, 21 January 2009
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08:07 - More on what some are describing as the "Seagate fiasco". The new firmware update, SD1A, has been withdrawn. It apparently "bricks" some 500 GB Barracuda 7200.11 models, and possibly others. There's a post on /. from someone who claims to be a Seagate employee posting anonymously, and it sounds credible to me.

If you have one of the affected drives (I have three 1.5 TB units with the SD17 firmware in my main system), my advice is to keep your data fully backed up and just wait to see what happens over the next week or two. I suspect Seagate will get a patched firmware update released sometime in the next several days. When that happens, I intend to wait a few days to see if there are any reports of problems with the new firmware before I install it on my own drives.



11:12 - I have a conference call with some of the folks at O'Reilly/MAKE coming up in a couple hours. We'll do it by ordinary telephone, but every time I have a conference call I think about installing Skype. I dislike Skype for a lot of reasons, but it's useful sometimes, and the video support is nice.

The problem with the video support is that it stopped working for me about 18 months ago, when I gave my old webcam to Mary Chervenak to take with her on her around-the-world run. I replaced it with a new Logitech model, which unfortunately wasn't supported by the version of Linux I was running at the time. Getting it working was never a high priority, so for 18 months I've had that webcam sitting on top of my display. When I upgraded the display on my main system to the 22" Viewsonic VX2255WMB, I had hopes that I'd be able to use the webcam built into that display. No joy, and again after playing with it for an hour or two I decided to stop wasting time and wait to see if a new version of Linux would support it.

In the interim, I've done two or three Kubuntu/Ubuntu upgrades. Each time, I looked at Device Manager to see if either of the webcams was recognized. Each time, they weren't. I hadn't checked since I upgraded to Ubuntu 8.10 over Thanksgiving, so this morning I decided to check. No joy. Nothing showing up in Device Manager for either webcam.

This time, I decided to go a bit further, so I started searching Google to see if there was a workaround to get one or the other of my webcams working. I was surprised to see that a lot of people had them working without having done any special tweaking. One of the messages mentioned connecting a USB cable from the VX2255WMB to a USB port on the computer. Urk.

I looked behind the display. Sure enough, there was no USB cable leading from the display to the USB hub. Nor was the standalone Logitech webcam connected to my computer. That really cuts down on the throughput. I apparently disconnected both webcams at some point and then forgot they were disconnected. I installed a USB cable from the display to my USB hub, and the built-in webcam started working immediately. Now all I have to decide is whether I really want to install Skype on my main system.


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Thursday, 22 January 2009
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08:38 - I'm working on the last two lab sessions for the forensics book, on DNA extraction and analysis by gel electrophoresis. That last one is difficult, because there are so many variables and so many minor missteps that can cause the results to be unusable. I'll get it worked out, though.


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Friday, 23 January 2009
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08:12 - Here's another Darwin Award candidate. Apparently, it never occurred to this woman that it was a bad idea to keep an 18-foot (5.5 meter), 325 pound (148 kilo) python in the same apartment with her 3-year-old child. Duh. The kid survived; the snake did not.

And, speaking of snakes, Barbara was sorting through some boxes of old photographs and found this one of me about 25 years ago, holding Ethel, who was our guard-snake at the time.

Photograph of Robert Bruce Thompson

I'm working on the final lab session for the forensics book, on DNA gel electrophoresis. Getting decent results at a reasonable price turns out to be very challenging. For example, I'd like to use agarose gel, but agarose isn't cheap. You can buy it in large quantities for maybe 75 cents a gram, but in smaller quantities it typically sells for $2 to $3 per gram. Depending on the size of the gel, one gel may require a gram or so of agarose, and I want to run multiple gels.

So agarose is out, but there aren't a lot of good alternatives. I was going to use ordinary unflavored gelatin, but it turns out not to work very well. It's too weak, too sticky, and too porous. I've settled on using agar agar, which is a mixture of agarose and other components, but is at least cheap and readily available.


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Saturday, 24 January 2009
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11:36 - When the built-in humidifier on our furnace failed a few years ago, the furnace maintenance guy told us we'd be crazy to replace it. (I just love technicians; they tell the truth regardless.) He suggested buying a standalone unit, which he said was unlikely to have problems and put a lot more water into the air than the built-in unit on the furnace. So we bought one, and it's worked fine for several years.

Yesterday, we noticed that the relative humidity in the house was down to 44% and that the humidifier wasn't using much water despite the fan running continuously. So this morning I pulled the top off of it and looked at the four folded paper wicks that draw the water from the reservoir up into the air current from the fan. The tops of all four were rigid, encrusted with deposits. I thought about soaking them in dilute hydrochloric acid, but I decided to soak them in the sink in hot water first. That seems to have worked. There are still stains, but the parts that were rock solid and rigid are now soft and flexible. I'm going to reinstall them reversed, with what had been the top on the bottom. I suspect they'll work fine for several more years.

And I got to thinking about what's been going on in that reservoir. For several years, during heating season, I've been adding tap water to it, typically between 2.5 gallons and 5 gallons (9.5 L to 19 L) per day. About 1 in 6400 hydrogen atoms is actually a deuterium atom. Heavy water, D2O or HDO, has a slightly lower vapor pressure than ordinary water, which means that for several years I've been adding water, say 5,000 gallons by this point, selectively evaporating regular water from the reservoir, and leaving the remaining liquid slightly enriched in deuterium for each pass. There's about a gallon in the reservoir now, which is the residue of 5,000 gallons of regular water. I may take a specimen of what's left in the reservoir, distill it, and see if the density is detectably higher than that of ordinary distilled water.



14:20 - Back when I was a teenager, I had several DC power supplies on my bench. I wish I still had them. I'm working on DNA gel electrophoresis, and I really need some kind of inexpensive, readily available DC power supply. The usual solution for doing gel electrophoresis at home is to use several 9V transistor batteries wired in series to provide anything from 27VDC to 90VDC or more. The problem with that is that 9V batteries aren't cheap. They run $2 to $3 each, and depending on your setup you may get only one or two gels run with your stack of four or five batteries. That starts to add up fast.

Within pretty a broad range, you can trade off voltage for time in gel electrophoresis. For example, a gel that takes 30 minutes to run at 54VDC may take several hours at half that voltage. Presumably, at some point the voltage is insufficient to drag the DNA fragments through the gel at anything more than a glacier-like pace, but I'm not sure what the realistic lower limit is. I'm going to borrow my neighbor's automobile trickle charger and see what happens at 13.8VDC. If that works, even if it takes several hours to run a gel, that's fine. Most of my readers will probably be able to beg or borrow a trickle charger if they don't already have one. If not, they can use batteries.

But what I'd really like is a cheap DC power supply, ideally variable voltage, that readers could use to run gels. It shouldn't require any soldering or other tweaking. That's a pretty unreasonable set of requirements, I know. In fact, I'd be willing to settle for just about anything in the fixed range of perhaps 24VDC to 60VDC. I'm hoping there's something obvious that I've missed. If there is, please let me know.



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Sunday, 25 January 2009
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09:40 - Barbara was complaining about our phone bill yesterday, which is up to $40/month. We make almost no long distance calls, and I was outraged to find that the 10-10-297 service that we'd been using has apparently instituted a minimum monthly charge of $7.50. So, in November we made one long-distance call that lasted 1 minute and were charged $7.50 for it. BellSouth has become AT&T, and our monthly basic phone bill has now increased to $20, not counting all the taxes and fees. Enough is enough.

I spent an hour or so last night looking at VoIP services. Barbara's sister has the Time-Warner digital phone service, and it sucks, not to mention being extremely expensive. Barbara pulled out the current issue of Consumer Reports, which had a report on phone services. I was surprised to see Vonage highly rated, until I realized that they were comparing it against TWC and other cable companies' services. I checked on line for sites that compare 3rd party VoIP services, and of course found that Vonage was among the worst of them according to the customer reviews.

Of course, the problem with these sites is that it's never obvious which are in fact independent. One or two of them are apparently funded by VoIP companies, and the anonymous "reviews" on some of them sound like they were written by the VoIP companies being reviewed. As usual, the bad reviews can usually be trusted, although many of those were apparently a result of bad experiences that weren't really the fault of the VoIP provider in question. I mean, you can really blame the VoIP company if you hook up their terminal adapter behind the router instead of in front of it and then find that voice quality goes down when you start sucking down a video torrent.

After fishing through the piles of reviews and other material, I came up with two or three possibilities. One of them got excellent reviews, but when I checked the BBB site it turned out that their record was unacceptable, with numerous complaints unresolved or even unresponded to. So I ruled them out. The one I keep coming back to is Phone Power, which has a decent BBB rating and mostly good reviews from users. I'm inclined to give them a try on their month-to-month plan. If that works out, I may go with their prepaid annual plan, which costs a total of about $250 up front for two years' service. Of course, they could go belly-up next month, which makes that risky.

If you use a VoIP service and have any recommendations from hard-won experience, I'd appreciate hearing them.



I got email from Bob Walder this morning. He was one of the early members of the daynotes blog group, but stopped blogging some years ago. He's back with a new blog. Check it out.


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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.